A sketch of societal-based obstacles to transformation after trauma

Uber Capitalism © 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

In the preface to his book The Order of Things (1966/1973), Michel Foucault shared the following excerpt from an ancient Chinese encyclopedia:

“… animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies” (p. xv).

By listing this entry, Foucault juxtaposed aspects of western thought that are typically taken for granted. For example, the modern western lexicographer avoids references to the subjective (“fabulous”) and the personal (“belonging to the Emperor”). Instead, every entry has the stamp of the scientific method: the capacity to be replicated by trained minds according to shared rules for experimentation and classification.

When western taxonomy is contrasted with the ancient Chinese approach to ordering the world, it’s also easier to identify how the western style of thinking diminishes the role of emotions and imagination for how we understand the nature of things. Jungian analyst James Hillman argued the West lost its soul when it ignored the significance of the imaginal for human societies and psyches. According to Hillman, the soul is “the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy” — what science after the Enlightenment came to depict as the wellspring of irrationality and madness (1975, p. xvi). Yet, if the nearly worldwide obsession with the web, smart phones, online gaming (and yes, pornography) is any indication, it’s the imaginal and other non-rational aspects of experience that preoccupy many of us, and at times to the point of obsession, if not addiction.

Attention to the imaginal aspects of psyche and society is a needed corrective for the current emphasis on rationality that is at the root of unimaginative policies, bureaucracies and governments, which despite their power, have failed to curb the proliferation of risk, environmental degradation and vast inequities in access to resources that are commonplace in late modern capitalistic democracies. To support this point, I look briefly at two ruptures in human history: the Upper Paleolithic 100,000 to 50,000 years ago, when the first cultures, or protocultures, began to flourish, and more recently, when the Enlightenment radically changed societies, the relationship to Nature, and conceptions of selfhood. The thread I see joining these two periods is dissociation, a basic, physiological defense against the overwhelming effects of traumatic events. Dissociation appears to have coevolved with the human capacity for fantasy and the imaginal. I hope to convince you that the traumatic reactions we often attempt to deny or escape are the very sources of transformation that we desperately need when trying to envision new societies or ways to repair current conditions.

Trauma and the imaginal

When trauma alters the course of development — whether an individual or collective trauma — the imagination and emotions are usually greater causal agents than thought or reason. This has to do with how the human body has evolved to deal with trauma. In the presence of a perceived threat, the body (including the brain) instinctively organizes for survival — activating fight, flight, freeze, submit, or attach responses. Thinking about a threat while it’s happening can slow down the survival response, thus energy is diverted away from the frontal lobes — the part of the brain responsible for higher order cognitive processes, including creating coherent narratives of events. With the thinking part of the brain shut down, there is no way to integrate overwhelming sensory information into a coherent, meaningful account of the trauma. Instead, emotional reactions are split-off from sensory memories, muscle memories, perceptions, and thoughts also registered at the time of the traumatic event. Thus survival comes at a price: fragmented memories in search of integration haunt many trauma survivors long after danger has passed (Ogden, Minton, and Pain, 2006).

Later, when triggered by traumatic reminders, trauma survivors again enter the experience of not thinking — or more accurately, the lack of intentional and reflective awareness — where imaginal ways of knowing are more prominent. This is witnessed in intrusive imagery, fantasies, flashbacks, and nightmares. Nevertheless, imaginal states compliment and compensate thoughts and conscious awareness, and when transformative, act as a bridge to post-traumatic growth, including new ways of understanding the nature of trauma, if not the meaning of life and death. However, post-traumatic growth cannot occur without grieving what has been lost, including the sense of security and worldview that dominated prior to the trauma.

Movement between so-called rational thought and the imaginal happens unconsciously and automatically. Some research suggests the shift to imaginal states occurs even when we blink our eyes. And we are incapable of inhabiting either mode — consciousness or imaginal forms of awareness — without eventually returning to the other.

Carl Jung focused on the interrelationship between these two distinct yet intertwined ways of knowing, which he referred to as “direct” and “indirect” thinking and associated with consciousness and unconsciousness. He wrote, “We have … two kinds of thinking: direct thinking, and dreaming or fantasy-thinking…. The one produces innovations and adaptation, copies reality, and tries to act upon it; the other turns away from reality, sets free subjective tendencies, and, as regards adaptation, is unproductive.” (1956, pp. 17-18).

While fantasy-thinking is unproductive, it is nevertheless a central and necessary part of human experience. Fantasy-thinking, or the imaginal, is the psyche’s opportunity to retreat from the external world, a symbolically guided moment that is potentially self-soothing, but also where we confront unarticulated fears as well as desires, and find creative ways to emerge into different environments by either molding them or ourselves to our imaginations.

I hypothesize that we stagnate, both as individuals and as collectives, when these two modes of awareness begin to function as distinct spheres, thus failing to produce opportunities for meaningful transformation. This can happen when, following traumatizing experiences or conditions, a person is overwhelmed by contents of the imaginal, such as flashbacks, and thus attempts to avoid engaging with the imaginal. Alternatively, fantasies can become a means of escape and the imaginal is sought for self-soothing rather than growth and meaning making. Both of these situations may be necessary following trauma for at least a while, and part of recuperation. Yet when prolonged, escaping through the imaginal, or numbing to its contents, likely leads to becoming stuck in post-traumatic stress reactions, and reduces the resilience necessary for transformation and meaningful change.

Dissociation and society

The use of the imaginal for dealing with trauma seems to be an evolved capacity that coincides with the evolution of dissociation. To understand this connection requires looking at how power, and the threat of social alienation, impacts both psyche and society.

Dissociation is thought to have originated as a property of all mammals and likely evolved with other defense reactions such as freezing in the face of threat and tonic immobility (or “feigned death”), which are central defenses for surviving predatory attacks (Levine, 1997). Yet for social animals, alienation can feel as precarious as being attacked by a predator. And as human dependency on the social group evolved, dissociation seems to have evolved to protect against social-based threats, along with the anxiety that comes with the potential loss of social connection.

According to psychiatrist Horacio Fabrega, dissociation evolved to include psychopathological states in response to increased social dependency during the Upper Paleolithic Era over 40,000 years ago, when artistic expression, protolanguage, and protoculture began to flourish throughout the world (2002). Why would this be the case? Why would the imaginal and dissociation co-evolve, and no less, to include psychopathological states? To make sense of this connection, Fabrega looked at two cultural practices that are synonymous with the western expression of dissociation: the states of trance and possession.

According to Fabrega, trance and possession are ritualized forms of dissociation that communicate a person’s social-related distress (2002). And according to Fabrega, they evolved as a way for members of a social group to identify when a person was overwhelmed by traumatic stress, including the threat of social alienation caused by vast inequities in power. Fabrega wrote:

“States of dissociation provided inner spaces or psychological arenas in which those stresses tied to psychopathology could be worked out by channeling psychological experience in a positive, conflict-alleviating direction and by producing scenarios of behavior that communicated the distress and played out in ways that were safe and culturally understandable, and capable of eliciting sympathy and support” (2002, p. 311)

Supporting Fabrega’s ideas, psychologist Peter Levine observed that shamans, who often treat trance and possession, recognize the very social nature of these dissociative responses: “Shamanistic cultures view illness and trauma as a problem for the entire community” (1997, p. 57). The valuable role of shamanic treatment is readily apparent: it is a vital method for reuniting members of the group when social conflicts threaten social cohesiveness.

Spirit possession in particular may be a way to communicate the victimhood engendered by social inequalities that have become ingrained aspects of society, such as gender oppression. Through the imagined voices of spirits, the subjugated and oppressed often voice their realities without fear of retribution, especially when possession is aligned with religious or spiritual practices. Anthropologist Sherrill Mulhern observed possession functioning as “a theater for voicing frustrations and grievances in male-dominated societies, or as a coercive tool used by women to secure retribution and revenge” (1991, p. 777). Trance and possession thus became ways to creatively bypass social dependency needs, inequities in power, as well as discursive practices that determine not only what can and cannot be expressed, but also the appropriate channels of self-expression.

Thus dissociation is more than just a physiological defense mechanism. It is also a potential opportunity for creating a new sense of self and adapting to social dynamics, if not challenging those dynamics. Enacting and creatively expressing dissociated contents of the imaginal potentially reduces feelings of overwhelm characteristic of traumatic stress. Expressing these imaginal aspects of psyche in socially sanctioned ways may also communicate a need for “gentler” opportunities for reintegrating into society. Thus dissociation can also be a plea to the social world for concessions and changes that increase adaptation for weaker members of society.

With this model of dissociation, traumatic reactions can be seen as catalysts of individual and social change. But what happens when they fail to mobilize support or contribute to transformation? I think learned helplessness is more likely, along with apathy and numbing, which can lead to retreat in fantasy worlds or avoidance of the imaginal, along with unhealthy and misdirected expression of emotions. Furthermore, when we can’t heal from a traumatic event, we are more likely to live in fear of its recurrence or other forms of victimization. Hence there is a need for communal support following trauma to feel both safer and stronger.

Furthermore, when traumatic reactions do not act as catalysts and instead become habituated responses, there is often a failure to grieve what has been lost due to the traumatic event, such as feelings of safety, a sense of innocence, as well as the mental, physical, or environmental conditions that predated the trauma. The lack of opportunities to grieve also contributes to seeking the imaginal as a form of escape or numbing of imaginal awareness.

Grief is a response to trauma seen in both individuals and societies. As Jungian analyst Greg Mogenson wrote, “the mourning of losses and the making of culture are synonymous activities” (1992, p. xv). And I venture that if a culture or society fails to create conditions in which individuals’ traumas can be grieved and transformed within a community setting, then the other option is to organize the culture or society in ways that ensure the propagation of traumatic defenses. This point brings me to another historical rupture, the Enlightenment, which seems itself to have dissociated the inevitability and centrality of grief — as well as the imaginal — for collective growth and survival.

The Enlightenment’s dependency on dissociation

The Enlightenment project promised knowledge of the incomprehensible, prediction of the inevitable, and a method for controlling Nature, including human nature and the scourges caused by vast inequities in resources, power, and status. In effect, the Enlightenment promised an end to suffering for those who lived rational lives.

The Enlightenment also initiated an epoch in which dependency on traumatic stress reactions made possible expansion not only of an ideology, but also the industrial revolution, which caused profound upheaval and loss of community for many, and included slavery and colonial oppression around the world. This was a period of profound change and trauma, yet very little space or time for grieving.

Both as individuals and collectives, we are weakened by conditions that obstruct our need to mourn our losses. And when we are weak, we are easier to manipulate and more readily submit to deplorable conditions.

Furthermore, when we lose opportunities to mourn, we are more at risk of developing complicated grief, and thus become resistant to tending to feelings of sorrow and vulnerability. Complicated grief also seems to occur on the group level, and likely contributes to religious fanaticism, reactionary politics, and the inability to stop overconsumption. In effect, when we can’t grief the losses caused by trauma, we seek ways to defend against the profound sense of vulnerability that is an inevitable aspect of all traumatic experiences. We begin to prefer staying defended against our own emotions.

An example of how societies become organized around the propagation of traumatic defenses is found in Daniel Lord Smail’s book On Deep History and the Brain, where he made a connection between global capitalism, social hierarchies, and the body’s reaction to threats. Smail argued capitalism exploits the body’s survival responses (freeze, fight, flight, and submission) by creating the conditions of psychological domination as well as providing relief from the feelings of powerlessness that capitalism and social hierarchies engender. According to Smail, capitalism generates stress through its unpredictability and hierarchical power structures, but it also alleviates stress by producing an economy organized around the production and circulation of addictive substances and practices.

Smail noted that, from its inception in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, global capitalism has been organized around creating and feeding addictions.  The first imports to Europe from Africa, the Arab World, and the Americas were coffee, sugar, chocolate, tobacco and “spirits” — all mood-altering substances. During this time, the term “addiction” gained its modern meaning as a self-inflicted behavior rather than the state of being indebted to another (serfdom) that previously distinguished the addict. With this shift in understanding of addiction also came a new organization of society away from a focus on managing external forms of control to a focus on internal ways of responding to dominance by self-medicating its effects.

Today, the use of addictive substances and activities to regulate stress is so common it is difficult to demarcate between what counts as recreational use of substances and what constitutes lifestyle maintenance. Addictions are a widespread way of managing feelings of agitation and overwhelm, which for many are habitual responses to the pressure of trying to make a living in the current global economy. Typically when we anticipate danger, the body either becomes so activated that it enters a state of extreme agitation (referred to as hyperarousal) or it moves towards a state of shut down, freezing in response to feeling profoundly overwhelmed (called hypoarousal). Addictive substances and activities are now everyday methods for escaping such states — a role religion has also served, especially in the pre-industrial world.

And by perpetuating traumatic defenses, there may also be a greater likelihood that the imaginal is used as a state of escape, and thus the significance of the imaginal for transformation after trauma and living an integrated life is more likely ignored or perhaps never learned.

Descartes’ fateful night

I trace the over-reliance on dissociation and traumatic defenses back to René Descartes, the noted architect of the Enlightenment and champion of the human capacity for reason. Although much is made of that fateful night when he sat by a glowing fire and heard reason assert itself — I think, therefore I am — it was actually madness that set the stage for his obsession with rationality. Descartes’ famous Discourse on the Method emerged from several sleepless nights during which he resisted the unconscious pull of his nightmares, a time remembered as “near madness” (Davoine and Gaudillère, p. 91). Descartes had been a soldier at the time — a freelance fighter in the Duke of Bavaria’s army during the Thirty Years War — and because of his unusual genius, felt out of place among his fellow warriors, perhaps even alienated.

War, as we know, is traumatic, and like all traumas, invariably activates the body’s traumatic reactions, including dissociation, flashbacks, and nightmares. Not surprising, it was during a period of fantasy thinking, perhaps even while self-soothing the psychological wounds of war, that Descartes discovered the foundations of his method. For it was during a delusional state, induced by fear and sleeplessness, that Descartes had the dream that relieved him of his near madness. In this final dream, Descartes claimed he was visited by “the Spirit of Truth, who presented him with books containing all the knowledge in the world” (pp. 93-94). Thus Descartes’ method, although meant to stage a break with a superstitious world, nevertheless was initiated much the way self and cultural change have occurred following trauma for millennia: through dissociative retreat into the imaginal (Kerr, 2014).

Descartes’ method was a psychotherapeutic approach. Yet, the cure ignored the significance of the imaginal for self and cultural change, as well as bypassed the grief for a lost world. Along with Descartes’ method, the Enlightenment initiated a split between the imaginal and the rational and denied the significance of trauma and its resolution, including mourning inevitable losses, for the making of culture. As a result, the imaginal and dissociation have also changed. Rather than catalysts for personal and collective growth, our imaginal worlds are often habitual reprieves from vacillating between feeling overwhelmed and emotionally shutting down. Granted, at least in dissociated, imaginal worlds there is the possibility of escape from suffering. But to take such an attitude is to doubt that transformation is possible. Prolonged escapism as well as numbing to the imaginal are serious threats to the capacity to feel both emotions and empathy.

Looking forward

Perhaps all great changes in human history are marked by disruptions and denial, or sublimation, of one way of being for the purpose of constructing alternative societies and cultures. This was certainly the case with the emergence of modernity. The elevation of rationality, equality, and basic human rights was an honorable goal in a world overrun with superstition and aristocratic power grabs. Nevertheless, in the rush to deny one way of being, the significance of the imaginal for transformation after trauma was lost, as well as the role of the collective for transforming overwhelming anxiety following inexplicable and unjust life events.

It seems habitual these days, if not ‘natural’, to depend on the imagination as a dissociated experience where one can escape reality. For some, this means using the imaginal to exist within the confines of social oppression, dominance, or abuse (or other ongoing traumatic conditions) without the outlet that states of trance and possession provided in earlier cultures. Because conditions of abuse and oppression regularly include alienation, there is also the risk of losing one of the most transformative aspects of self and society: opportunities to grieve together and grow together.

To find our way back to more integrated selves and collectives, we have to be willing to learn to grieve collectively once again, and to rely on each other for overcoming our losses and traumas. The imaginal plays a central role in this process, especially when expressed through art, music, myth, spirituality, and storytelling. But rather than an end point, these creative pursuits are the integrative bridge across the liminal gaps in our psyches and the alienation in our communities, ways we can begin to let go of what no longer buoys humanity and discover what actually uplifts us.


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© 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).